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The fried fish sandwich gets an upgrade at these L.A. restaurants

Fried cod sandwich from Oui Melrose.
Fried cod sandwich from Oui Melrose.
(Mariah Tauger / Los Angeles Times)
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Sometimes, it feels as if the forces of the universe are conspiring to create a food
of the moment. That food, at this moment, is the fried fish sandwich.

We seem to have emerged from the Fried Chicken Sandwich ecosphere only to enter an era of another fried protein in bun. Fried fish sandwiches oozing with tartar sauce are crowding my social media feeds in a way that simply can’t be ignored. Most are inspired by a specific style of fish sandwich, steeped in comfort, with origins that can be traced back to two famous golden arches.

Popeyes has a new Cajun Flounder Sandwich. Is it better than the McDonald’s Filet-o-Fish? Watch our fish sandwich throwdown to find out.

For the record:

2:30 p.m. March 24, 2021The price of the Love Hour sandwich is $8, not $16. And Yess Aquatic is using Vermilion rockfish.

Many of us grew up on the McDonald’s Filet-O-Fish sandwich; a reliable reference point for every fish sandwich to follow. But its popularity now is fueled partly by an emphasis on alternative forms of protein and partly by a collective need to eat comforting foods during perilous times.

Here are 10 versions of the classic (including a plant-based sandwich!), made by independently run small businesses, who do it a lot better than the original.

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Crispy School Fish Burger, $14.50 (sandwich and a side)

The fish burger from Crispy School in Westlake.
(Jenn Harris / Los Angeles Times)

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The Fish Burger at this Westlake restaurant is more like three perfectly fried, giant fish sticks, shoved into a very good brioche bun. (It also happens to come with an extra fish stick on the side). The slabs of cod are dredged in fresh panko and fried like they are in fish and chips, with a crisp, shaggy coating. A skirt of melted cheddar and white American cheeses sits atop the fish, holding the strips together. Globs of tartar sauce that taste like the stuff of your youth — creamy, classic and piquant — ooze out of every crevice. And a heap of slivered pickled onions cuts through the richness of the fish batter and all that cheese. This is a superb fish sandwich that requires two hands and a stack of napkins.

526 S. Occidental Blvd., Los Angeles, (213) 277-1927

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Little Fish Fried Fish Sandwich, $20 (sandwich and two sides)

A fried fish sandwich from Little Fish, an Echo Park pop-up run by Anna Sonenshein, Niki Vahle and Forrest Florsheim.
(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

“I feel like fish is having its moment,” Anna Sonenshein says. She, along with Niki Vahle and Forrest Florsheim, run Little Fish, an Echo Park pop-up that specializes in fried fish. The three worked together at Son of a Gun restaurant and launched the pop-up during the pandemic. Their sandwich is served in a boxed lunch with a side (when I visited, it was pasta salad) and a bag of Zapp’s potato chips. Its base is a piece of Pacific striped bass marinated in shio koji before it’s battered in a mixture of beer, rice flour, all-purpose flour and vodka, and then fried. The batter is on the thicker side, craggy and bronze, but remarkably light and airy, with a slightly nutty, caramelized flavor. A slice of just melted American cheese sits on top with sliced Grillo’s pickles, and it’s all layered on a Martin’s potato roll dressed with plenty of Kewpie mayonnaise.

Full menu and pop-up hours at instagram.com/littlefish_echopark

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Eszett Filet-Uh-Fish, $14

The fish sandwich from Eszett.
(Jenn Harris / Los Angeles Times)

Spencer and Sabrina Bezaire have an affinity for fish sandwiches. When they retooled their menu after the shutdown last March, Spencer wanted to make food that was familiar and comforting and introduced a fish sandwich to the menu, a variation on the sandwich Spencer developed while cooking at Highland Park Brewery. He uses sushi-grade albacore tuna for a meatier, sturdier filet. He seasons it with salt and pepper and dunks it in an egg-and-buttermilk wash. He dredges the fish in panko that he mills for a finer texture. The result after frying is a complete seal of crunch around the fish that doesn’t fall apart. He adds a tartar sauce, pickles and slivers of raw onion. If you’re wondering where the cheese is, you won’t miss it. The tartar sauce is more of a rich aioli, crowded with fresh dill and whole capers. And you’ll want to put it on everything.

3510 Sunset Blvd., Los Angeles, (323) 522-6323, eszettla.com

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Beleaf Go Fish Fillet, $9.50

The Go Fish Filet from Beleaf Burgers in Chino Hills.
(Beleaf Burgers)

Wally Vu and his partners at the Beleaf restaurants grew up on what he calls “suburban food culture.” And, yes, they ate a lot of McDonald’s Filet-O-Fish sandwiches. The entire menu at their plant-based operation, with locations in Chino Hills and Stanton, is an attempt to create vegan takes on nostalgic fast-food favorites. And the Go Fish Fillet sandwich has been a staple since they opened their first location in Chino Hills in May 2019. The sandwich is made with a filet of soy protein. It’s noticeably denser than a piece of white fish, battered in panko so that it tastes like a giant fish stick. A slice of vegan American cheese blankets the filet, which is crowned with a heap of shredded lettuce and rough chopped raw onion. Beleaf is generous with the tartar sauce, made with vegan mayonnaise, and the golden toasted bun is a dead ringer for the ones you’ll find at In-N-Out.

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Multiple locations at beleaf-burgers.com

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Oui Melrose Crispy Cod Sandwich, $9.50

Fried cod sandwich from Oui Melrose.
(Mariah Tauger / Los Angeles Times)

Chef-owner Armen Piskoulian says he ate and dissected a couple of Filet-O-Fish sandwiches before developing his own, which he introduced to the menu at his Melrose Avenue bakery and restaurant in February.

“I thought this could be done so much better, then I started developing the breading for it,” he adds.

Piskoulian soaks his Atlantic cod filets in buttermilk, then coats them in breadcrumbs before frying. The filets are seasoned with Old Bay “and a couple of additions” and topped with house-made dill pickles and a tangy tartar sauce made with chopped cornichon, lots of dill, Worcestershire, mustard, shallots and garlic. Piskoulian’s bun is a buttery brioche/hamburger bun hybrid that he slathers with garlic and herb butter and toasts. While all the components are excellent, the architecture of the sandwich is key. The slice of cheese goes on the bottom, so it isn’t glued to the fish. And the tartar sauce — on the top and bottom of the fish — adds acid and moisture to every bite.

“I want the sauce to be dripping out of the sides so the mouthfeel is just right,” Piskoulian says.

Yes, it is just right.

6909 Melrose Ave., Los Angeles, (323) 852-3944

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Yess Aquatic food truck Fish Katsu Sandwich, $13

The fish katsu sandwich from Yess Aquatic.
(Jenn Harris / Los Angeles Times)

Every bite of Junya Yamasaki’s fish katsu sandwich hits a little different. The fish, which he sources locally, , is sometimes Vermilion rockfish, sometimes bocaccio or lingcod, depending on the day’s catch. On a recent visit, it was Vermilion rockfish, coated in breadcrumbs and fried until beautifully crisp. It’s buried under an avalanche of tartar sauce punctuated with plenty of onion, fresh parsley, chopped egg, and pickles infused with green tea and horseradish. Yamasaki doesn’t believe in using processed ingredients, so instead of a slice of American cheese, he adds a single sheet of nori. And for another “Japanese touch,” he adds fresh, shredded cabbage and seasons the sandwich with bonito flakes. Yamasaki also makes his own buns for the food truck, which he bakes with seawater, giving them “a more complex salt taste,” he says.

2001 E. 7th St., Los Angeles, yessaquatic.com

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M’Dears Bakery and Bistro Fried Fish Sandwich (with catfish or red snapper), $11.95

The fried fish sandwich from M'Dears.
(Jenn Harris / Los Angeles Times)

M’Dears has been around since 1992. What started as a hot dog cart in Long Beach is now a two-location soul food operation with restaurants on Western Avenue and in Lakewood. M’Dears may be known best for its peach cobbler and sweet potato pie, but the fish sandwich is what keeps me coming back. The fish is catfish or red snapper (your choice), breaded in what tastes like a mix of cornmeal, flour and plenty of black pepper. It mimics the coating on very good fried chicken and keeps the filet both moist and intact. It’s layered simply on a squishy bun with a slice of tomato and crisp iceberg lettuce. And the fish gets a drizzle of tartar sauce and herby ranch dressing, which makes perfect sense the moment you try it.

7717 S. Western Ave., Los Angeles, (323) 759-2020, mdears.net

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Fishing with Dynamite Crispy Fried Fish Sandwich, $18

The fish sandwich from Fishing with Dynamite.
(Alice Mai)

Chefs David LeFevre and Alice Mai started making a crispy fried fish sandwich after reconfiguring their menu during the pandemic. Mai experimented with more than a few versions, but decided simplicity was best. The sandwich is made with large filets of haddock rolled in breadcrumbs and fried. Instead of tartar sauce, Mai uses a dill aioli spiked with pickle juice. There’s a slice of cheddar cheese, and the sandwich is dressed with Bibb lettuce and sliced tomatoes seasoned with salt, pepper and a few dashes of Tabasco. While every component of the sandwich was heavily discussed, LeFevre says the bun, which tastes like a cross between a brioche and a potato roll, was of the utmost importance. “You want to have a really soft bun because if the bun doesn’t give, the fish will,” he says. “And the last thing you want is the fish breaking.”

1148 Manhattan Ave., Manhattan Beach, (310) 893-6299, eatfwd.com

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Ototo Filet-OTOTO-Fish sandwich, $13

The fish sandwich from Ototo.
(Jenn Harris / Los Angeles Times)

Co-owner Courtney Kaplan and chef Charles Namba wanted to serve a menu of nostalgia-packed childhood favorites when they retooled the restaurant last spring. Namba has always been a fan of the McDonald’s Filet-O-Fish sandwich and decided to have some fun with it. “How do we take good-quality ingredients and local fish and maintain the character of the original?” Kaplan asked herself.

Namba uses buns from Röckenwagner Bakery and wild, locally sourced rock cod that gets the karaage treatment (breaded in rice flour, AP flour and panko and deep-fried). It’s topped with a slice of American cheese, something Kaplan says is simply non-negotiable on a fish sandwich. And the tartar sauce could be a respectable sandwich filling on its own. The pale yellow concoction is full of roughly chopped egg sharpened with a hit of yuzu kosho. For an extra punch of acid, Namba adds slivers of yuzu daikon pickles.

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1360 Allison Ave., Los Angeles, (213) 784-7930, ototo.la

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Love Hour Friday Fish Filet Sandwich, $8

Portrait of owner Mike Pak showcasing the fish sandwich outside his restaurant, Love Hour, in Ktown.
Portrait of owner Mike Pak showcasing the fish sandwich outside his restaurant, Love Hour, in Ktown.
(Mariah Tauger / Los Angeles Times)

The Koreatown burger pop-up introduced its Friday-only fish filet sandwich about a month ago, partly due to customer requests and partly due to co-owner Michael Pak’s love of the original. “I am a big fan of McDonald’s, and this is us paying homage to the sandwich,” Pak says. Chef Aaron Lopez beer-batters and fries filets of tilapia and builds the sandwich with a slice of American cheese, the fish and a creamy tartar sauce packed with fresh dill on a Martin’s potato roll. It’s similar in both flavor and texture to the original, only better. The sandwich is officially available until April 4 but Pak said he plans to put it on the menu once Love Hour opens its first bricks-and-mortar location.

532 S. Western Ave., Los Angeles, love-hour.com

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